Another Caltrans Lie: Video Claims Widening 5 Freeway Reduces Pollution, Congestion

Does anyone outside of Caltrans still think that widening freeways will reduce pollution and minimize congestion? Image: screen capture from Caltrans video
Does anyone outside of Caltrans still think that widening freeways will reduce pollution and minimize congestion? Image: screen capture from Caltrans video

It is jarring that nearly two decades into the twenty-first century, California’s transportation department is still making claims that freeway widening will somehow curb pollution and reduce congestion. These are false claims–lies. Past experience and research show that widening freeways worsens congestion and air quality, yet Caltrans repeatedly claims the contrary.

In a new video shown at the Metro Congestion, Highway and Roads Committee earlier this week, and posted online yesterday, Caltrans claims that its $3.2+ billion dollar (and growing – see below) project to widen the 5 Freeway through much of L.A. County will “minimize congestion” and “reduce pollution” (minute 3:15).

Earlier Caltrans videos in 2016 and 2017 make similarly indefensible claims about widening the 5 Freeway.

When the freeway builders got going in the middle of the 20th Century, they promised that building freeways would get congestion off of surface streets. If they had been right back then, then by now all of those Southern California freeways should have pretty much entirely eliminated congestion from nearby streets. But because of induced travel and other clearly understood, well-document predictors of travel behavior, the promised reduced congestion never happened. In fact, L.A. keeps building and widening freeways, and traffic congestion keeps getting worse. When capacity is added to roadways, congestion increases.

And, based on Caltrans’ promises, shouldn’t L.A. freeways have reduced pollution to pretty much nothing by now?

It is astonishing that anyone can claim that freeways reduce pollution. Along with all that congested freeway car traffic come plenty of other ills. Increased pollution is one of the big ones – and it brings with it child asthma, cancer, global warming, and more. Freeways’ heavy costs also include traffic deaths, displacement, noise, disconnected neighborhoods, and budget-breaking infrastructure maintenance costs passed along to future generations.

Metro is funding the widening of the 5 Freeway through its county sales tax measures. This week Metro announced that both the upper and lower 5 Freeway expansion projects are expected to go over budget (see page 54 of this staff report). Hopefully, local media will pick up on this story, the way they have critiqued rail project overruns. Don’t hold your breath.

There may justifications for widening freeways. The project will increase car capacity. The project creates lots of quality jobs, especially in the construction industry. Many L.A. politicians supported billions in highway expansion; some do this happily, while some see it as a sort of devil’s bargain to get drivers to vote to fund rail system expansion. Based on these justifications, freeway widening projects do have relatively broad public support.

Nonetheless, Caltrans public communications should be about what the project actually does. Caltrans needs to stop lying and stop promising results that Caltrans cannot and will not deliver.

How road widening works. Cartoon via @BrentToderian Twitter
How road widening works. Cartoon via @BrentToderian Twitter
  • Adam

    It’s not induced demand it’s latent demand, or diverted demand.

    Meaning congestion deters many people from making a trip on the freeway or causes them to seek an alternate route, such as the avoid freeways option on your maps app.

    when a freeway lane expansion opens, that latent demand now has an outlet and can be relieved, and people previously deferred from making the trip or using alternates route now use the freeway instead , and the freeway fills up just as though the lane expansion had induced them. It really didn’t induce any demand though because the demand preexisted the freeway expansion, at Best it displaced alternate uses with freeway uses.

    As for pollution it is pretty basic one lane of freeway carries 1700 cars per hour: idling cars emit more exhaust than cars going at speed and it’s fairly linear between the two, acceleration emits a lot of pollution as well.

    if the average speed of the freeway at rush hour goes from 10mph to 20 mph (after expansion) and there are only 1700 new cars on the road, less pollution is definitely being emitted per car but mathematically probably less pollution overall is being emitted even with more cars on the road.

    Of course if you add 1700 new cars and the freeway stays the same moving at 10 mph then you definitely will have more pollution.

    But the theory is quite sound.

  • Joe Linton

    The article does not mention “induced demand” – it only mentions “induced travel” – a term recommended here: https://www.strongtowns.org/journal/2016/1/29/podcast-susan-handy

  • Vooch

    $3.2 billion dollars would build 6,400 miles of protected bike lands in SoCal

    six thousand four hundred miles

    every arterial could have a PBL

  • Jonathan Weiss
  • Joe Linton

    Sounds eerily like Measure M promise to “ease congestion”

  • Nancy Johnson

    “It is astonishing that anyone can claim that freeways reduce pollution.” That’s because most of us aren’t blinded by our own activism. Cars have the most efficiency when traveling at the same rate of speed, and the least efficiency when stopping and starting.

    You and your cohorts ignore one underlying fact in reaching your activist-opinion conclusions: the population of metropolitan Los Angeles continues to increase faster than we are creating new roads. And thus, when we widen a freeway which was already beyond capacity a decade before the widening, there is still traffic.

    It is idiotic to think that we should stop developing car infrastructure considering that the population of LA continues to grow and the primary mode of transportation WILL ALWAYS BE the car. This is a separate issue from becoming multi-modal, which we should do as well.

  • Nancy Johnson

    This article was 100% accurate at the time it was written. The problem is that they allowed the population to increase by tens of millions after they did this.

  • Nancy Johnson

    Very good point Adam, and something I’ve been trying to get Joe to understand for a few months now. The demand is already there. The freeways and roads in Los Angeles are already beyond capacity, and the concept of induced demand (or induced travel) is inapplicable in Los Angeles where demand already exceeds available road space and the only feasible option is the car. No one went out and bought a car in LA because they added a lane on the 405. The reality is that we need to continue to develop the car infrastructure in LA because the population and number of cars is going to continue to increase. Anyone that says other wise is an activist pushing their personal opinions and not someone who understands necessary policy.

  • Darren

    Nancy,

    You are correct that cars operate more efficiently in uncongested conditions, and yes, widening a freeway will *in the short term* reduce pollution.

    But in the longer term (think 5-10 years out), people will respond to the lower congestion by doing a mix of diverting from other routes, shifting trips they once took during the off-peak period to during the peak period, and some may switch from more space-efficient modes like transit and non-motorized transportation. The result will be not just the same congestion, but more cars traveling in that congestion, resulting in more emissions than before the widening.

    As for capacity not keeping up with population, your argument presumes that there is no way to change the share of people who drive. There are ways to influence the share of people who drive, such as:

    -congestion fees to discourage people from driving during peak periods. This reduces congestion without widening and has the added bonus of providing funding to make more space-efficient modes like transit more accessible to more people.

    -allowing denser development near transit. Many people live in car-dependent areas because they are priced out of more transit-accessible housing. Increasing the amount of allowable construction near high-quality transit will provide people the choice to live in a location where they have alternatives to sitting in congestion, such as using public transportation, walking, etc.

    -provide a more connected bikeway network with infrastructure that makes it more comfortable, appealing to the roughly 40% of the population that, per surveys by Rutgers prof John Pucher, would use cycling as a form of transportation if there was better infrastructure.

    These are just a few

  • Joe Linton

    LOL! Perhaps “they” should have stopped increasing the population after you arrived, Nancy, that would have solved the problem, no?

  • Vooch

    Disagree – lavish subsidies for mass motoring completely distort people’s mobility preferences.

    eliminate the subsidies and VMT would decrease by 1/2 in SoCal.

  • KentinLA

    It should have been clear decades ago that the use of private cars for the majority of travel in our urban areas is a failure on many levels. Our roads and freeways become dysfunctional for many hours of the day, costing us many billions of dollars in lost productivity, lost time, impaired health, wasted resources and accelerated climate catastrophy. To suggest that we need to keep expanding this failed paradigm to keep up with ever-growing demand will simply dig us in ever deeper to the automobile dependency that has created some of the biggest problems our society faces. The solutions are plain as day and being practiced the world over: begin accommodating the growth in denser in-fill development well-served by public transit; continue expanding public transit faclities and service frequency; greatly expand our underdeveloped bikeway networks; take advantage of appropriate shared mobility technologies; reduce parking requirements and stop providing subsidies to automobile users such as free parking, cheap fuel and unpriced access to roads. The imperatives of climate change are upon us; delaying the transition to a more sustainable transportation-land use paradigm will cost us dearly.

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